Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
Cities remind us of what we can build as a species, but do they also leave us incomplete?
A little tardy, yet comforting. A little claustrophobic but with edges within it, to linger in. Crammed with our cravings and desires, both gotten and forbidden, leaving us hungry still. A surface glimmer, which like any surface develops cracks.
And then to go peer in. Calvino, in his celebrated Italian work in translation, INVISIBLE CITIES, takes you in.
Starting each chapter with the very personality that identifies each nook and cranny of his many-in-one-city. It is a book you can smell, walk around in for it fills you with the sensory objects that drills cities into our moments and memory cards. Makes them familiar to touch, sense and miss. Makes them so fulsome to photograph. Or shoot on mobiles.
But these visions too are always mobile and available to the mind, when gone from view, are they not? This book though, is always talking about one city, as a somewhat mirror of city-dom. Of thought and experience and how it differs when two people talk about it. The conqueror and the explorer are in conversation here as an imaginary Kublai Khan with Marco Polo. Widely travelled, they spar from their vantage points of seeing too. It almost seems like a monologueish chat between the very material and the invisible energies of life.
As the description of each imagined city gets richer in almost movie-script like detail, it comes with a near statutory warning – do not confuse the city with the words that describe it. And the reader cannot take it lightly, for there is no obvious mirth or joke in this book. Calvino in fact offers a deadly insight in the last few lines of each chapter. As if his experience of the city goes deeper and demands that you listen more closely. But it is not a heavy book. In fact it is a fairly thin one. It does not need to be read one chapter after another, in a way that travellers follow and then can change itineraries. But whatever order you read it in, it is a promising invitation to leave you bemused.
For its enduring appeal is in classically, being a fantasy world. Or more precisely, fantastic.
Like a face to face storyteller session is on and a writer is writing a very novel novel. Now imagine both happening simultaneously and you might enjoy cavorting these pages.
I re-read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities after nearly a decade. This time by the sea.
As the clouds misted like a giant black overcoat determined to leave no edge of the sea uncovered, it was the invisible in Invisible Cities which held me. And then fell like rain through my fingers.
I had touched it barely.
It felt to me sometimes, like a soul baring selfie of the grip of much of what we call modern or post-modern or post-post-modern.
A conclusive immensity teased me beyond its surface density and messed with me. Memory. Sensation. Points of view are pillows which are to be put away as he beams these final words,“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
For me, this work lives forever in the present. It is like those two in one players in Indian homes in the eighties. On the one side, the static of memory as it is trying to catch signals, tune into the right radio station, seeing what it sees, hearing what it hears, and getting lost, tired and impatient. On the other, a more timeless melody playing.
In life, can both play simultaneously?
P.S. This work even has a very tedious WIKI on it. Reading this classic offers the opposite charm.
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